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Rod Guides Basics

Budget or breakthrough, it's hard to imagine fishing rods can get any better than this.

For the average angler, if your rod guides are in good condition, showing no signs of wear or cracking, there's little reason to obsess about the technology. Aluminum oxide rings developed 40 years ago are fine today, even for braided polyethylene line. Assuming the frames are stainless steel, a thorough freshwater rinse and towel-dry should stave off corrosion for many seasons.

If you're looking for a new rod, however, it's worth knowing more about those components.

And then of course there's the third camp—guys like my neighbor, who throw away an otherwise good rod only because the guides are in sorry shape. New guides (or even old guides scratched off a broken rod) can make an old rod new again.

Walking my kid to school one day, I surreptitiously lifted that old fiberglass Shakespeare spinning rod from my neighbor's trash pile. The guides were corroded beyond recovery, and several of the ceramic rings were missing.

The rod itself was indestructible, old-school fiberglass. Too much of a stump to work well as a spinning outfit, but as a jigging and drifting stick, it had promise. Maybe mount a heavy baitcast reel on it, like a Penn 965? I thought about some guides I'd recently scraped off a broken trolling rod. (If you, reader, haven't yet developed a habit of squirreling away rod and reel parts, I suggest you begin.)

I took the rod and the guides to Roy McFarland, master rod builder and proprietor of Treasure Coast Rod and Reel, in Jensen Beach. From his inventory, he completed the set of guides, Fuji aluminum oxide heavy duty casting guides, durable and cost-appropriate. Together, we turned that old spinner into a versatile boat rod, starting with scraping off the epoxy, spray-painting the blank, wrapping new guides, and applying three new coats of epoxy.

I left the original Shakespeare label, so that my neighbor would recognize his rod when I anonymously returned it to his porch.

Rod-building techniques are largely unchanged in the last half-century, but the components—especially those guides—have undergone major recent developments.

One system McFarland touts as a great upgrade for high-end spin and casting outfits is the REC Components RECOIL guide. The guides are humble in appearance, just wire loops. But, they're virtually indestructible. Pricey, yes, but worth it in the long run.

“For a fishing guide in Chokoloskee, I put the RECOIL guides on one of his rods seven years ago,” said McFarland. “When he broke that rod recently, I took the guides off of it, and put them on another rod that I built for him... I actually built two for him this time. You couldn't tell new guides from the 7-year-old guides.”

The nickel-titanium RECOIL guides became an instant success among fly fishermen about 10 years ago, and the demand has been growing among spinning and casting anglers.

By telephone I spoke with Paul Howarth, product manager for REC.

“It's a shape-memory alloy, a blend of nickel and titanium. They can deform and go right back to their original shape,” he said. “For flyrod snake guides, they're 60 to 70 percent lighter; for spin and casting guides, anywhere from 25 to 300 percent lighter, depending on what ceramic rings you're talking about.”

The RECOIL guides, in fact, do not have a ring insert, which adds to the weight savings and provides another benefit. Because the line passes directly across the nickel-titanium frame, says Howarth, “There's direct strike translation, through the guide, right into the blank.”

Also, “There's no iron, meaning no saltwater corrosion; these guides will never rust or corrode.”

REC is based on Connecticut, and supplies components to mass-production and local builders alike.

Fuji incorporates titanium in many of its premium guide frames built in Japan, including some of the new K-series guides.

Introduced to the U.S. market last year, the K-series frames feature several design characteristics aimed at minimizing braided line tangles. Fuji developers used high-speed video to document the ways in which line backs up and bunches up around guides on the cast.

One secret seems to be flaring the braces, and raising the point at which they attach to the ring. This helps shed line. Also, the rings are swept forward, again to move line away from the guide. Surfaces of the frames are polished smooth.

Some of these attributes—though not the angled rings—are found in earlier Fuji Concept guides, including the LC series. The drive then was to minimize line contacting the blank, which adds friction and robs casting distance.

“For guys fishing braid, there's nothing better,” says Capt. Kevin Merritt, a fishing guide who got fed up with line-slap and began building his own rods. Based in Naples, he now builds 70 or 80 a year for customers, and does consulting work for other companies. “K guides have allowed me to get more aggressive with stepping down guides—get that line coming off the reel from a coil into a straight line faster, the cast will travel much farther.

“I kind of figured it out by accident—I was messing around with baitcasting rods, adding one size larger guide, until I ended up with a spinning rod with the same guide train in the last third as a baitcaster.”

Using smaller, lighter titanium-frame guides also gives appreciable weight savings where it counts, says Merritt.

“It might not seem like much, maybe the weight of a penny, say, but tape a penny to the end of your rod and see what it feels like.”

Star Rods was one of the first U.S. builders to use to K-series silicon carbide (SiC) guides, on a few spinning rods in its Plasma series (specifically, a pair of 7-footers, $279.95). For 2011, builder Barry Heller says the K-guides will be available on “at least six rods in the Plasma and Paraflex series.” Other models use the Fuji Concept Guides.

This year, Shimano incorporated K-series guides into the new Terez series, retailing for $200 to $280.

“The theory behind it is, [braid] is becoming such a dominant player, we wanted a better performing guide,” said Robby Gant of Shimano.

The Terez rods are offered in five striking color patterns, with the unmistakable, forward-sweeping guides. It's mainly an offshore series, with 20- to 80-pound class rods. The blanks are TC4—a light, powerful 4-layer mix of T-glass and carbon fibers.

“We have a couple of spin/popping rods with LC guides, not the same as the K guides; they look like casting guides, small rings, semi-tangle free,” said Gant.

Shimano's new Waxwing series also includes K-guides on a couple of models, said Gant.

Fuji offers many different ceramic inserts in its vast product line, but the K-series guides are available with SiC or Alconite. What's Alconite? It's is a proprietary Fuji ceramic that features 80-percent greater compression strength, and 20-percent less weight than aluminum oxide.

The heat-dissipating qualities of Alconite (important for anglers fishing very light monofilament) are nearly that of silicon carbide, and yet the cost is much less.

Eddie Carman, proprietor of Biscayne Rod, still builds all his rods right there in Hialeah, Florida, same as his father and grandfather did in 1948. The company is respected for attention to specific angling needs, such as rods designed for certain IGFA line-classes.

This year, Biscayne Rod introduced the Legacy Series rods, which feature Fuji Alconite guides on U.S.-made North Fork graphite and Lamiglas fiberglass blanks. A 7-foot, 8-pound-class spinning rod in the series sells for $190, factory direct. The cosmetics are those of anglers who take their fun seriously: black EVA grips, black thread wraps, matching the jet-black Alconite rings.

“Alconite is in between SiC and Hardloy,” Carman said, referring to the hardness scale.

St. Croix is a refreshingly transparent mass-builder which doesn't hide the point of origin of its products. The company offers a wide range of rods, from premium sticks built in Park Falls, Wisconsin, to high-quality price point rods assembled in Mexico. Want those RECOIL guides on a production rod? St. Croix offers them, on the Legend Extreme rods. Fuji SiC? The Legend Elite series.

The Mojo Inshore series, introduced last summer at ICAST, features Batson Forecast guides on St. Croix SCII graphite blanks. The series features 7- and 7 ½-foot spinning and casting rods in popular line- and lure-weight ratings, for $130 to $140.

Jeff Schluter, vice president sales and marketing, for St. Croix, explained, “Batson Enterprises is the distributor of the guide used on the Mojo Inshore rods. As far as I know, they were the first to offer 316 stainless-steel guide frames. The advantage with this frame is improved corrosion resistance when compared to standard frames with 304 stainless-steel. Ring material is similar to a Fuji Hardloy ring in terms of smoothness and the Vickers hardness scale.

“On the Inshore rods, ring sizes are larger to accommodate knots used for saltwater fishing. Ring sizes and guide spacing is similar to our Tidemaster inshore series.

“We've had very good success with the 316 frame and the durability of the Batson guides in general.”

Temple Fork Outfitters, or TFO, came up with a similar strategy in its new Gary Loomis (yes, he was G. Loomis) designed spinning and casting rods, all $99.95.

These rods have silicon carbide guides... but if you're at all familiar with the cost of rod components, you know right away they're not of Fuji provenance.

Will they stand up to the heat, so to speak? One would certainly expect they will, given that the reputations of TFO designers are on the line. I played around with the rods last summer at the ICAST show in Las Vegas, and was impressed. The TFO rods even have a unique, color-coded power rating.

Collectively, rod builders big and small have filled into most every conceivable niche in the industry, and often as not, it revolves around guides.

Even mega-retailers like Cabela's are in on the game, keeping up with current trends.

“Cabela's fishing-rod designers conducted numerous flex tests on these new Prodigy Micro Baitcasting Rods to determine how many Fuji micro guides each should have, and exactly where each guide should be placed,” said Communications Specialist Chuck Smock. “The micro guides reduce the overall weight of the rod and increase sensitivity by providing more contact points between the line and the blank. They also reduce profile of the rods, allowing you to put more rods in a single rod tube or rod locker, and reduce line tangles when you are storing multiple rods together.”

Price? $99.99.

Fenwick Rods are no longer built in the U.S., but at $110, the HMG-series spinning rod has Fuji Alconite guides, quality cosmetics, composite handle and great action.

HMG, for the record, stands for “High Modulus Graphite.” It's the same term used by the Fenwick company, then based in Washington state, when it rolled out the first-ever graphite fishing rods, in 1972.

Even one of the custom rod-builders I spoke with for this article (I won't say who!) was surprised at the HMG.

In the end, the tackle industry has given us great advances in rod technology over the years. We've never seen such a wide assortment of high-quality rods, particularly at that “magic” $100 price point.

At the same time, Florida's custom rod-builders continue to give us that individual touch, whether it's a completed rod, a high-tech guides upgrade, or merely a refurbished stick from a dark corner of your neighbor's garage.

Learning the Trade

By far the best way to learn rodbuilding is to study with an experienced builder. It's not rocket science, but there are countless secrets that make the process go smoother.

Even if you never plan to build your own rod, it pays to learn to replace a guide.

With a sharp, sturdy blade, scrape away the epoxy and thread wraps from the guide's foot or feet, and pop the guide off. Now scrape away the rest of the thread and epoxy until you have a clean surface to work with. To avoid cutting into the blank, hold the knife perpendicular to it and scrape, not slice, the epoxy and thread. Light sandpaper may be used, but again, careful not to dig into the blank, especially if it's graphite.

Now, use a thin piece of masking tape to hold the guide in place while you begin securing it with rod-wrapping thread (check with a local tackle shop for appropriate threads and a bobbin tool, which makes the wrapping process easier). Start by wrapping the thread over itself a few times to anchor it to the blank, and then wrap down and over the foot of the guide, removing the tape as you proceed. Finish by wrapping the thread six or seven times over a loop of monofilament, 15-pound-test or so. Now cut the thread, leaving about 3 inches. Run the end of the thread through the mono loop, and then pull out the loop, thereby drawing the end of the thread under the final wraps.

Use two-part epoxy to cement the thread wraps. Pros do this while the rod turns slowly on a motorized dryer, so the epoxy doesn't clump. At home, you can turn the rod yourself several times over a few hours, to achieve serviceable results. For quick repairs, instead of epoxy, you can use fingernail hardener, such as Sally Hansen's Hard as Nails, and brush that on the thread wraps.

Replacing a tiptop guide is even easier. Normally, ferrule cement is all that holds the tip to the blank. Scrape off a little epoxy around the tip guide, and then warm the guide shaft with a candle flame (careful not to get it hot enough to cook the graphite!). Use pliers and pull off the broken tip guide. Now heat up some new ferrule cement, apply it to the tip of the rod, and install the new tip guide, twisting it as you press it into place.

If you don't have a rod-building shop nearby, Mudhole Custom Tackle,, is an excellent online source for new guides and other components, rod building supplies and tutorial DVDs. The shop, in Central Florida, also offers rod-building classes.

First published in Florida Sportsman Magazine,  March 2011

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